Amy Newman, Mct
HAWORTH, N.J. — A New Jersey priest is providing a rare, intensive look inside a Roman Catholic priesthood tarred and shaken by the child sex-abuse scandals.
The crisis didn't just harm victims and test the faith of believers, asserts the Rev. Stephen Fichter, pastor of Sacred Heart parish. It also affected priests innocent of any wrongdoing.
Some priests were angered at diocesan leaders for their lack of action, and others felt shame for the church and for themselves as its representatives. There was paranoia they could be accused falsely, and many said the incidents made them wary of interactions with congregants, especially kids. Some even stopped wearing their collars in public for fear of heckling.
Those are among the findings of the recently published book, "Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood Since Vatican II," (Liturgical Press 2012), in which Fichter and co-authors explored changes in the priesthood over the past 40 years through interviews with hundreds of priests nationwide.
"I felt great pain. It was terribly hurtful. ... It's like losing a member of the family," one interviewed priest said in the book. "One accused priest in my order had been my confessor and spiritual director. There was a lot of pain hearing what was being said about him and others."
Fichter, who has a doctorate in sociology and does research for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said, "We knew we couldn't stick our head in the sand and pretend it didn't happen. We recognized what a horrific tragedy it was.
"The weekend the news came out about the scandal in Boston in 2002, I tried to deliver a homily in church and I broke down and cried. We realized that what we were trying to address was a tragedy. ... But in our book, we try to look at how it affected the good priests — the 99.9 percent who never molested a child — what was it like for them, who maybe knew the guy and served in the same church and thought he was a good guy and then found out he was fondling an altar boy."
Fichter himself could relate to the sense of betrayal and mourning: "I found out a guy I was friends with was a monster," he said. "It absolutely shatters you."
James Davidson, professor emeritus in the sociology of religion at Purdue University, called Fichter's findings "an important book" and said "the reason the book is going to get a lot of coverage is because it's got some of the best data out there on today's priests. It's got a longitudinal look out there dating back to the 1970s and gives us a sense of how they are different from priests 40 years ago."
And Davidson agreed that the child-sex scandals "continue to haunt the American Catholic Church. The fact that there has been such an episode seems beyond belief. ... The priests have been as troubled by it as anybody. It's been their colleagues who have been entangled in this episode. It affects their sense of who they are and the careers that they have dedicated themselves to. ... As a result, everybody is looking for answers and wanting to look at implications of this whole mess."
Another topic in the book is the graying of the American priesthood. In 1970, the average age of a priest was 35 and now it's 63, said Fichter, 44. As a result of a shortage of Americans going into the priesthood, many bishops have turned to other lands. That multiculturalism brought with it blessings as well as challenges, Fichter said. "In some dioceses, the majority of priests were born outside the U.S."
Davidson called the demographic information one of the book's "most important findings." But he also notes indications that even with their increasing average age and dealing with a growing Catholic population, "it's remarkable that they are as satisfied with their ministries as they are, considering the conditions that they are working under."